The Power of Smiles: Educating a Rural Ugandan Village, a Poetic Photo Essay

Boys Carry Water Along Road in Ugandan Village

By: Kimberly L. Bryant

In Nantwala, Buikwe District, Central Uganda, students play at recess on the lush grounds of Erinah Manjeri Mixed Primary School. In service since 2005, the school – like the village it’s in – has no power, no plumbing. Yet life here is vibrant.

Boy Walks Alone on Village Road

Volunteers occasionally come to Nantwala from abroad to donate time and skills at Erinah Manjeri – teaching English, helping with construction. It’s a refreshing village experience they get in exchange, complete with local cuisine of matoke, rice and cassava, cooked traditionally over hot coals. The evenings are filled with lively chatter, the expansive farm fields sparkle with fireflies – all beneath a star-filled Ugandan sky.

But completely idyllic Nantwala is not. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has taken its toll here leaving many children without parents. Orphaned children often become the responsibility of an elderly or disabled grandmother or older woman whose own children are grown. In most cases, this caretaker lacks the ability to properly look after and educate the child.

Ugandan Family in Front of Village Home

Ugandan Family on Porch

Masitusla Nantongo (82) is one example. In her home, she takes care of more than five children of different parents.   After losing their mother to AIDS, the children’s father, Salongo Semakala Muhamad (50), moved to Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, where he struggles to make ends meet. Salongo’s sister-in-law died from the virus shortly thereafter, leaving behind a handicapped child, now too under this grandmother’s care.

Girl Relaxes on Front Porch in Central Uganda

Abigail Nabwire (87) sits outside the room shared with children she cares for, plus an additional family.

A similar case is that of Abigail Nabwire (87), also the sole caretaker of a grandchild, Kyagulanyi Twaha (15). Kyagulanyi’s parents are believed to have died from AIDS 12 years prior.  Many rural grandmothers and orphans live similar existences throughout Nantwala, struggling to afford better opportunities.

School Grounds, Central Uganda

Student at School, Central Uganda

Enter Erinah Manjeri, the inspiration for Nantwala’s premier Mixed Primary School. When school founder Mark Bbumba (54) met Erinah Manjeri in 2000, she too was a very poor and elderly woman.  Living in Nantwala and responsible for a number of orphans, she had few resources to provide for them, let alone pay for their schooling.  Frustrated, she pleaded with Bbumba to help improve this desperate situation for all involved.  He agreed.

Construction at School, Central Uganda

Bbumba began an organization aimed at helping educate the children of Nantwala – those like Masitusla Nantongo’s girls and one of Abigail Nabwire’s children, who attended for years until Abigail could no longer afford it – all orphaned by HIV/AIDS or other tragedies and left to the care of senior village women and rural grandmothers like Erinah. This is the context in which the Erinah Manjeri Mixed Primary School was born. And although Mark Bbumba lives and works as a farmer in the nearby city of Lugazi, he visits the school several days each week to ensure that classes and ongoing construction are running smoothly.

Paint-spattered Worker at School, Central Uganda

Math, science, history – a range of subjects are taught in the school’s freshly-painted yet dusty, sun-lit classrooms, where students sit on crooked wooden benches, attentive to instruction and cooled by whatever breezes find their way in from out-of-doors.

Students Play Around after Class, Central Uganda

Yet as positive as all this seems, it’s still not enough. Academic opportunity for the majority of young people in Nantwala is virtually nonexistent. Most children in the village stop their schooling after finishing P7, the last level offered at Erinah Manjeri, the school being unable to afford the higher fees for implementing secondary education.

Though Erinah Manjeri and the few schools in the neighbouring village of Lweru educate their students as best they can, resources – even basic school supplies like paper and pencils – are scarce. Many students go to school without uniforms, notebooks or breakfast to sustain them throughout the day.

Worker Enjoys Fresh Jackfruit on Break, Central Uganda

For students who can afford it, a modestly-priced school lunch of Posho – a traditional Ugandan dish consisting of maize flour and beans – is provided on a daily basis. But their numbers total only about 30 of roughly 140 students. The remainder use the mid-day break in search of sugarcane or maize from nearby fields to quell their hunger.

Students Play During Recess in Buikwe District, Central Uganda

Challenges remain for Erinah Manjeri Mixed Primary School in the village of Nantwala, Uganda. Yet theirs is a story of action — locals pooling resources for change. And if mega-watt smiles of school children are any indication – there’s enough energy here for more.

Prosperity T-Shirt Distributed for President Museveni Campaign, in Buikwe District, Central Uganda

 About the Photographer

KLBryantThailandKimberly Lauren Bryant is a documentary photographer and visual artist currently based in Africa. Originally from Canada, she holds a degree in Visual Arts from the University of British Columbia and is a photography graduate of The Compelling Image. Specializing in creating unique imagery with a focus on bold color and pattern, she finds inspiration in film, art, and everyday life. With interests in travel and visual anthropology, her passion for creative expression shapes who she is and how she interacts with the world. Whilst continuing her long-standing love affair with visual language, Kimberly enjoys soaking up the myriad colors, sounds, and sights on offer around the world.

  1. Wow, what a moving story and what amazing photos. You should leave a link here saying how people can donate and help…? Sad that a whole generation is being lost to AIDS.
    Thanks for a great post,

  2. Hi Carmen, thanks so much for reading! To get in touch with the organization, please visit Indeed, it is very sad to see the lives lost and families broken apart by the devastation of AIDS. But there’s always positive progress to be made, and the more people we have to help, the better!

    1. Hi Elisabetta, thank you so much! So true about smiles following us everywhere. I’m about to head back over to South East Asia, and am preparing myself for an onslaught of warmth from the peoples’ energy!

  3. Well, their life is different from ours! These photographs make me realize how fortunate I am to be living in such nice, comfortable and safe environment. Wonderful photo essay!

    1. Hi Renuka! Yeah, I definitely experienced culture shock while living there. Without the comforts of power and plumbing, let alone wifi (!), I had a first-hand introduction to the immense difference in village lifestyle. It really inspires gratitude for all of the luxuries that we have in the West! Thanks for reading.

  4. Moments captured so wonderfully by your camera. Your sense for the moment as well as for the wider context of the Ugandan reality is wonderfully pictured. His bright yellow shirt calling for “Prosperity for All’ is quite a sad irony of development policies failing most. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi Diana, I really appreciate your supportive words! I, too, felt the weight of the irony in Thomas’s T-shirt slogan. Politics in Uganda are complexly challenging, to say the least. My overall experience in the country has been incredibly eye-opening in ways I’d not previously imagined.

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